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Friday, November 28, 1997 Published at 13:14 GMT



UK

Briefing: The Wild Mammals Bill

The aim of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill is to prevent wild mammals from being pursued, killed or injured by the use of dogs.

The Bill was introduced by Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, and has been sponsored by Roger Gale (Con), Kevin McNamara (Lab), Simon Hughes (Lib Dems), Angela Smith (Lab), Sir Teddy Taylor (Con), Ivor Caplin (Lab), Jackie Ballard (Lib Dem), Jackie Lawrence (Lab), Nigel Jones (Lib Dem), Margaret Ewing (SNP), and Ian Cawsey (Lab).

Background to the Bill

Labour's pre-election manifesto contained what was seen by many as a clear indication that hunting would be outlawed:

"We will ensure greater protection for wildlife. We have advocated new measures to promote animal welfare, including a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned by legislation."

However, the Government has said that it is not going to allow the Bill extra debating time in the House of Commons -- other than the normal time allocated to Private Members' Business -- because it believes that opposition to the Bill in the House of Lords could take up so much time that other important Bills, such as the ones outlining devolution plans for Scotland and Wales, would be held-up.

This move has been poorly received by many people who believe that the Government should allow the Bill enough time to become law.

Mr Foster's Bill will be the first of the Private Member's Bills (PMBs) (excluding Ten Minute Rule Bills and Presentation Bills) to have its Second Reading during this session of Parliament by virtue of coming top of the annual Private Member's Ballot (held this year on 22 May). A Private Member's Bill is a piece of legislation devised by a single Member of Parliament who attempts to steer it through Parliament and make it law. Most of Parliament's business is devoted to Government legislation and consequently, not many PMBs make it through he legislative process.

How the Bill could fail

Each session, the Government allocates a number of Fridays which are given over solely to Private Member's Bills (PMBs). Only those PMBs which have all-party support and Government backing will make it to the statute book. This is because, if any one MP feels sufficiently strongly against a measure, that MP can effectively obstruct the Bill.

How can this be done?

(i) either by tabling so many amendments that the Bill cannot be properly considered in the LIMITED time given. In this event, the Speaker is obliged to rule that the Bill has not been sufficiently considered and cannot therefore proceed.

(ii) or by filibustering i.e. talking for so long that the Bill runs out of the time allocated to it. This is an interesting practice: in previous debates, MPs have been known to read out excerpts from the telephone directory to use up the allotted time.

Hence, in order for this Bill to eventually become law, the Government would have to allocate EXTRA time for its consideration at the Report Stage (i.e after it has been discussed in committee) - the point at which it is likely to run out of time for the above reasons. At the moment it seems that the Government does not want to do this.

The Abortion Law Reform Act 1967 was given extra time by the then Labour Government. The Government does this by allocating an extra day from its own parliamentary time, rather than on a Friday set aside for dealing with private member's business. It could do this at the end of the Report Stage if the Bill had fallen due to insufficient debating time. Downing Street confirmed on November 3 1997 that no extra time would be given.

The Bill is expected to receive a large majority at its Second Reading on Friday November 28 and then to proceed easily through its Committee Stage. The next stage at which it can be hijacked is the Report Stage, when MPs can table more amendments to it and/or talk it out.

Whilst the Government did confirm that it would not provide extra time for the Bill, it will be paying close attention to the public and media response to the publicity surrounding the Second Reading debate. If the Government feels that there is a huge groundswell of support for the Bill, it may well decide to back-pedal and allocate more Parliamentary time.

The Government Chief Whip, Nick Brown, has been saying that if the Bill does not go through as a Private Member's Bill, the measures could be introduced as an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. If this were to happen, it is very likely that the measures would succeed as part of a Government Bill because Government Bills are almost 100% successful in becoming law. However, Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's Chief Press Officer, has said that what Mr Brown said does not constitute Government policy and that the Government will wait to see what happens with the Bill.

For, against, and absent

Some of the Government's big guns, including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will not be around for the vote. John Prescott, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, Frank Dobson, Donald Dewar, Jack Cunninhgam, Clare Short, Mo Mowlem and David Blunkett are all away on official business.

Tony Blair is on the parliamentary record as saying he supports a ban: "I have voted before in favour of a ban on fox hunting and I shall continue to do so" (Hansard, July 9, 1997). His opposite number, William Hague, is opposed to the proposed legislation.

What happened last time?

John McFall's Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill was the last attempt to outlaw hunting with hounds. It passed its Second Reading in the Commons on March 3 1995 by 253 votes to 0 -- no opposers of hunting bothered to vote, knowing that they could defeat the Bill with their inherent majority at Committee stage. Clause two - banning the wilful use of dogs to kill, injure, pursue or attack - was removed in Committee and the Bill was defeated in the Lords.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill, introduced by Kevin MacNamara (Lab) in 1992, was defeated at its Second Reading on February 14 1992. Clause Two would have prohibited the use of dogs to kill, injure, pursue, attack or take wild mammals.








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